Changes to disciplinary process on way - Veterinary Practice
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Changes to disciplinary process on way

FASTER and fairer methods will be introduced to protect animals and their owners from errant behaviour by both veterinary surgeons and VNs, the audience was told at a satellite meeting during last month’s BSAVA congress.

Representatives from the Royal College and its VN council explained proposed changes to the RCVS disciplinary process, progress on the new code of conduct, and outlined the structure of the newly introduced system for investigating misconduct by registered veterinary nurses.

Yet even now that ministers have given the go-ahead to the RCVS’s plans for a legislative reform order (LRO), members are advised against holding their breath for the new system to come into force.

Even with a so-called “fast track” process it might take around 15 months to enact the legislation needed to introduce a new structure for the preliminary investigation and disciplinary committees, said the Royal College president, Peter Jinman.

Reform of the disciplinary procedures for veterinary surgeons is the most urgent priority in making up for the deficiencies of the outdated Veterinary Surgeons Act, he said, and any other issues will be addressed during the coming months by an RCVS legislation working party.

The LRO will address the fundamental issue of creating an independent tribunal that will no longer consist of the College Council members responsible for making the rules. But it will also assist the search for people who will be able to spare the time needed to serve on these committees.

Mr Jinman pointed out that the disciplinary committee sat for 47 days in 2010 compared with 17 days in 2005. Finding dates suitable for all members of the committee was creating a bottleneck.

“Speeding up the process will be of benefit to everybody, the complainant and the veterinary surgeons or nurses involved,” Mr Jinman said.

Three-month consultation

DEFRA would be announcing the necessary three-month consultation period on the proposed order in May, he continued, and it would be laid before Parliament at some time in the autumn.

In the meantime, the Royal College would be lobbying MPs and Peers on the importance of the new system in order to ensure that it was introduced as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the disciplinary process for registered veterinary nurses was already in place, having taken effect at the beginning of April. Liz Branscombe, who chairs the VN Council, explained that the system was modelled very closely on that for veterinary surgeons and would address issues of serious professional misconduct, criminal convictions or fraudulent registration.

The powers to suspend or remove someone’s registration had not existed under the old system of listed nurses
before the VN register was opened. But now most listed nurses qualifying before 2003 have come on board, with 84% of eligible VNs now registered. But if the new system follows the same pattern as for the veterinary surgeon disciplinary process, then very few complaints are likely to lead to a formal disciplinary hearing.

“VNs should know that they are not likely to be disciplined simply for making a genuine mistake. There is a lot of concern, worry, even panic in the profession about these changes but if we want to be taken seriously we have to have a process in place for disciplining those who do transgress. We are sure that very few will require this system.”

The rules are intended to cover the “happy incompetent” as well as those who knowingly break the rules. But it is only those who make repeated errors or attempt to cover up their mistakes who are likely to get into trouble. “If in doubt, call us for advice,” Ms Branscombe urged.

Wherever possible, the Royal College will avoid having to bring its members or those of the VN council before its disciplinary committees. It recognises that there are many situations where it is not the appropriate option for the person concerned and it is also sensible to avoid the huge costs, currently about £10,000 a day, resulting from a formal hearing, pointed out Gordon Hockey, who heads the Royal College’s professional conduct department.

This is the reason why the RCVS introduced a new health protocol last November for dealing with members with drink or drug problems that will often manifest themselves as professional conduct issues. The protocol is intended to provide a more compassionate approach to dealing with personal problems and is modelled closely on those systems already in place for other professions.

Help and guidance

Instead of shining a public light on the member’s problems at a disciplinary hearing, the person will be offered help and guidance. Mr Hockey said the RCVS hoped that this would deal more effectively with addiction as colleagues may now be more likely to come forward to report their concerns.

Mr Hockey also updated members on progress towards the introduction of a new Code of Conduct to replace the existing guide. This would attempt to make members’ obligations much clearer to understand and would deal with issues missing or not covered adequately in the existing document.

A draft of the code could be downloaded from the RCVS website and he urged all members to read it and come forward with any comments.

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